I. Elaine Allen, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Statistics & Entrepreneurship
Co-Director, Babson Survey Research Group
Jeff Seaman, Ph.D.
Co-Director, Babson Survey Research Group
Editor, Inside Higher Ed
Editor, Inside Higher Ed
Four companies – CourseSmart, Deltak, Pearson and Sonic Foundry – provided financial support to help make this research effort possible, and contributed understanding of the market that helped the authors shape the questionnaire. All final decisions about the nature and wording of the questionnaire were made by the Babson Survey Research Group and Inside Higher Ed.
Special thanks go to Hester Tinti-Kane, Roy Henry, and Jim Karalekas of Pearson for their extra efforts that allowed us to build the nationally representative sample of higher education teaching faculty.
Finally we want to thank the thousands of faculty members and academic administrators who took the time to provide us with such detailed and thoughtful responses. We understand that you are very busy people, so we very much appreciate your effort. This report would not be possible without you, and we hope that you find it useful.
I. Elaine Allen
Co-Directors Babson Survey Research Group
Editors Inside Higher Ed
This study focuses on attitudes and practices related to all aspects of online education – including views on the quality of learning outcomes, issues of institutional support, and institutional rewards. Even as online enrollments have grown exponentially, attitudes about online learning have remained conflicted.
The study is based on the results of two related, but separate, surveys. The first is a nationally representative sample of higher education faculty members who are teaching at least one course during the current academic year. The second focused on academic administrators – in particular those responsible for academic technology at their institutions.
Faculty report being more pessimistic than optimistic about online learning. Academic technology administrators, on the other hand, are extremely optimistic about the growth of online learning, with over 80 percent reporting that they view it with “more excitement than fear.”
Professors, over all, cast a skeptical eye on the learning outcomes for online education. Nearly two-thirds say they believe that the learning outcomes for an online course are inferior or somewhat inferior to those for a comparable face-to-face course. Most of the remaining faculty members report that the two have comparable outcomes. Even among those with a strong vested interest in online education – faculty members who are currently teaching online courses – considerable concern remains about the quality of the learning outcomes.
Faculty members with a greater exposure to online education have a less-pessimistic view than their peers. Instructors at schools with online offerings (either online courses or programs) are more positive than do those at institutions with no such offerings. Faculty with direct online teaching experience have, by far, the most positive views towards online education.
About one-third of faculty members report they think that their institution is pushing too much instruction online, compared to fewer than 10 percent of administrators. Over all, fewer than one half of all professors believe that their institution has good tools in place to assess the quality of in-person instruction, while only one-quarter say the institution has good tools for assessing online instruction.
Yet on the most basic question asked of faculty at institutions with online offerings – have you recommended an online course to a student or advisee? – 60 percent of faculty reported that they had. Among those who teach online the rate is 87 percent. Among those with no online teaching, it is 49 percent. Nearly one half of the faculty who believe that learning outcomes in online education are inferior to those for face-to-face instruction are still recommending online courses for their students.
Online learning has experienced consistent growth in the 10 years that the Babson Survey Research Group has been tracking and producing annual reports on the enterprise. The number of students enrolling in one or more online course has increased at rates far in excess of the growth of overall higher education enrollments. The proportion of students taking at least one online course has increased from fewer than 1 in 10 in 2002 to nearly one-third by 2010, with the number of online students growing from 1.6 million to over 6.1 million over the same period – an 18.3 percent compound annual growth rate.
Even as enrollments have grown exponentially, attitudes about online learning have remained conflicted. Nearly two-thirds of chief academic officers responding to the Babson 2011 survey described online learning as critical to their institutions’ long-term strategy, but even as they expected demand for online offerings to grow, they expressed serious concerns, particularly about quality. Nearly a third said they believed that online learning outcomes are inferior or somewhat inferior to those for face-to-face instruction, and the same proportion said that their faculty members “do not accept the value and legitimacy of online education.”
As is true in many discussions about major developments in higher education, the voices and views of faculty have all too often been missing from the conversation about online learning. There has been a vacuum of information on how faculty members perceive online learning, with few cross-institution examinations of their opinions and practices. This study is designed to begin to fill this void – by reaching out to a national sample of higher education instructors to examine what is on their minds regarding online education.
This study reports on the results of two related, but separate, surveys. The first is a nationally representative sample of higher education faculty members who are teaching at least one course during the current academic year. A total of 4,564 faculty responded to the survey, representing the full range of higher education institutions (two-year, four-year, all Carnegie classifications, and public, private nonprofit, and for-profit) and the complete range of faculty (full- and part-time, tenured or not, and all disciplines). Three-quarters of the respondents report that they are full-time faculty members. Just over one-quarter teach online, they are evenly split between male and female, and over one-third have been teaching for 20 years or more.
A second outreach effort focused on academic administrators – in particular those responsible for academic technology at their institutions. These administrators were asked many of the same questions directed to the faculty, to enable a comparison of how they match (or differ from) the views of the instructors they support. There are a wide variety of titles among those invited to participate – the most common being “Director of Academic Computing” and “Director of Instructional Technology.” A total of 591 administrators provided a sufficient number of responses to be included in the study. The respondents include slightly more men than women, with about one-quarter having been in their current position for 20 years or more.
The study focuses on attitudes and practices related to all aspects of online education – including views on the quality of learning outcomes, issues of institutional support, and institutional rewards.
Our experience in surveying faculty has shown that they are very good at providing well-thought-out and nuanced responses. They are less successful at providing unambiguous responses without qualifications. One question in the current study was purposefully designed to force just such a response; it asked, “Does the growth of online education fill you more with excitement or with fear?” Only two responses were possible: “more fear than excitement,” and “more excitement than fear.”
The objective was to measure the overall level of optimism about online education among all faculty members, and to compare that with the results reported for the academic technology administrators using the same question.
Faculty report being more pessimistic than optimistic about online learning (by 58 percent to 42 percent). Academic technology administrators, on the other hand, are extremely optimistic about the growth of online learning, with over 80 percent reporting that they have “more excitement than fear.”
Are male faculty members are more technologically inclined than their female counterparts? Alternatively, are women more empathic and does this influence their feelings of optimism? Examining responses by gender for both faculty and academic administrators reveals only small differences in their opinions about the growth of online education. Female faculty members appear to be slightly less optimistic than were their male counterparts, while the pattern was reversed among the administrators, where women were a bit more optimistic than the men.
Previous Babson Survey Research Group reports on online learning have found a strong positive relationship between exposure to online education and a more positive attitude toward it. This pattern holds true for this study. Administrators and professors alike at institutions with more extensive online offerings (those that provide both individual online courses and fully online programs) are more upbeat about online learning than are their peers at other institutions. Those at institutions that do not offer fully online programs, but do have individual online courses, are less optimistic about online education than are those with online programs, but are still more optimistic than respondents at institutions with no online offerings are.
Attitudes toward online learning also align with faculty members’ own teaching experiences. Professors who are teaching both online and blended courses hold the most favorable view, with two-thirds reporting that they feel more excitement than fear. Those teaching online have a somewhat less positive view, followed by those teaching only blended courses. The faculty members who are not teaching either blended or online courses are more likely to express fear than are faculty members who are teaching online and/or blended courses.
These results, while confirming those observed in our earlier studies, do not imply causality. This observation may simply be self-selection bias; administrators, for example, who are most interested in online learning may seek jobs at institutions that have such offerings. Likewise, instructors with more positive views of online education may be more likely to volunteer for such teaching assignments, and are more likely to be selected for such roles by academic administrators. While we cannot conclude that exposure to online education necessarily leads to a more positive view, the two are strongly correlated.
Faculty members at two-year institutions are somewhat more positive (49 percent compared to 40 percent) about the growth of online than are their peers at four-year schools. Those at larger institutions (as measured by the total number of faculty) are likelier than their peers elsewhere to express fear than excitement.
Attitudes toward online learning were also examined for multiple subgroups of faculty. Faculty members who have been teaching the longest were slightly less likely to express “more excitement” than were those just beginning their teaching careers; part-time faculty were more excited than their full-time counterparts, as were those not on the tenure track and faculty who teach in professions or applied sciences.
A consistent finding from the annual Babson Survey Research Group reports on online education is that a substantial minority of chief academic officers continues to hold serious reservations about the quality of student learning outcomes for online education. Chief academic officers typically set, or have a large role in setting, the academic strategy for their institutions. They also have an important voice in the allocation of resources to the various academic programs and units within their institutions. That a number of them view online learning outcomes as inferior does not bode well for the level of respect online instruction may have at their institutions.
However, for all the importance that chief academic officers may have on the direction of their institutions, the fact remains that very few of them actually teach – and even fewer would have any direct experience teaching online. What do the faculty who actually teach think about the relative learning outcomes for online and face-to-face instruction? Professors, over all, do not have a positive view of the learning outcomes for online education. Nearly two-thirds (66 percent) say they believe that the learning outcomes for an online course are inferior or somewhat inferior to those for a comparable face-to-face course. Most of the remaining faculty members report that the two have comparable outcomes. Fewer than 6 percent of all instructors consider online to be either superior or somewhat superior to face-to-face instruction.
The level of concern about learning outcomes among faculty members is far greater than for either the previously surveyed chief academic officers or the academic technology administrators in this study. The majority of both non-faculty groups consider online and face-to-face education to be comparable, with more chief academic officers answering “inferior” than “superior,” and roughly equal numbers of technology administrators saying inferior as saying superior.
The survey also examined the relationship between faculty members’ exposure to online instruction and their views of it.
Not surprisingly, there is a strong positive relationship between the degree of online offerings at faculty members’ institutions and their relative opinion of the quality of online learning outcomes compared to face-to-face instruction. An overwhelming proportion (83 percent) of faculty members at institutions with no online offerings believe the learning outcomes for online courses are “inferior” or “somewhat inferior” to those of face-to-face instruction. This rate drops to 69 percent of professors at institutions with online course offerings and 55 percent at institutions with fully online program offerings.
Faculty at four-year institutions have a more pessimistic view of the relative quality of online education than faculty members at two-year schools. Instructors at four-year institutions are less likely to consider the two as equal (25 percent compared to 39 percent) and more likely to report that online is inferior (33 percent compared to 23 percent). It is interesting to note, however, that the majority of faculty members at all types of institutions examined believe that online learning outcomes are at least somewhat inferior.
It is only when we look at the personal experience of the faculty member, as opposed to the institution-wide environment he or she operates in, do we find any group that does not consider online to be inferior. Among faculty members with no online teaching responsibilities for the current academic year, fully three-quarters report that online learning outcomes are at least somewhat inferior to those of face-to-face instruction. Among instructors who are teaching at least one online course, this number drops to 39 percent.
Experience teaching at least one blended course during the current academic year also has an impact, but not quite as large as teaching a fully online course appears to have. The proportion considering online learning inferior is still a minority, but barely so, at 49 percent.
Even among those with a strong vested interest in online education – faculty members who are currently teaching online courses – considerable concern remains about the quality of the learning outcomes. When 40 to 50 percent of faculty members who are teaching these courses report this level of concern, it is clear that chief academic officers’ perception that their faculty members remain reluctant to embrace online instruction appears to be correct.
We do not know exactly why faculty members feel as they do about these matters, but we can look at several related factors to provide a better understanding of the context of their responses. For example, are there identifiable aspects of online courses that lead faculty to their conclusion – or is it something inherent to instruction online, and therefore impossible to address? Or could there be something about the current nature of online learning that may change (and improve) over time? Examining faculty attitudes on the potential of online instruction, in contrast to its current status, may provide some context. Alternatively, perhaps instructors consider their own courses to be fine, but have concerns about those taught by other faculty members, or perhaps those taught at other institutions. The current study specifically addressed some of these possibilities.
Faculty opinions shift somewhat when the question moves from a focus on the present to one of potential. Respondents were asked if they agreed or disagreed with the statement that “online education can be as effective in helping students learn as in-person instruction.” The overall pattern for faculty members is still more negative than positive, but not nearly as negative as their responses about the current quality of learning outcomes.
Academic technology administrators view this question very differently from the faculty they work with. While only 38 percent of faculty members either agree or strongly agree that online education can be as effective as in-person instruction in helping students learn, the corresponding number of the sample of administrators is 83 percent. Only 2 percent of administrators strongly disagreed with this statement – compared to 16 percent of the responding professors.
Faculty members with knowledge of and exposure to online learning have a much more positive view of its potential. Nearly half of faculty members at institutions with full online programs agree or strongly agree that online education can be as effective in helping students learn, compared to slightly over a third at institutions that offer only online courses (but no fully online programs) and one in five professors at institutions with no online offerings of any type.
Faculty members who are currently teaching online courses are more than twice as likely as those who do not teach online to agree that online education can be as effective as in-person instruction in helping students learn.
The strong relationship between exposure to online learning and more positive views of its current status and future potential may stem from a concern on the part of faculty that online instruction takes considerable time and effort to be done correctly – and that not all higher education institutions (or faculty members) are taking this time and effort. Faculty were asked about this issue in two forms – one directed at all other higher education institutions, and one specifically focused on for-profit institutions.
The results for faculty members are about evenly divided on the relative quality of offerings at their own institution compared to those offered elsewhere. In response to the statement “Online education at my institution is of high quality, but I’m dubious of quality elsewhere,” almost half of all professors describe themselves as neutral; about one quarter agree and one quarter disagree.
The picture is very different, however, when the question is reframed as “I have concerns about the quality of online instruction offered by for-profit institutions.” Over half of all faculty members strongly agree with this statement, and close to 30 percent report that they “agree” – for a total of 79 percent who say they have a concern about the quality of online education at for-profit institutions. Just under 7 percent disagree with this statement.
We know from our annual surveys of chief academic officers that higher education institutions continue to expand the range of their online offerings both for strategic reasons and from student demand. We also know from those reports and the current survey that there is a considerable level of concern about online education among the faculty. What do professors think about their own institutions’ online strategy?
One-third of all faculty members say they “disagree” that their institution is pushing too much instruction online, and another 8 percent report that they “strongly disagree.” Nearly a third say that they are neutral, leaving only slightly over one-quarter of faculty members expressing concern about the amount of online instruction that their own institution is offering.
Academic technology administrators have consistently expressed more favorable opinions about online education than the faculty has, and this topic is no exception. Fewer than 10 percent of the administrators either agree or strongly agree that their institution is pushing too much instruction online.
Do faculty at institutions with the most extensive online offerings feel differently about their institution’s strategy than do those at institutions with more moderate online offerings? Faculty at institutions with fully online programs are somewhat more likely to feel that their institution is pushing too much instruction online than are faculty at institutions that have only online courses, but no fully online programs. This difference, however, is very small.
One question raised in conjunction with online courses is that of assessment. Systems developed over the years to assess traditional face-to-face instruction may not be well suited to play a similar role in online courses. The survey asked faculty about their view of their own institution’s ability to assess the quality of its courses for both online and face-to-face instruction. Over all, under half of all professors say their institution has good tools in place to assess the quality of in-person instruction, while only one-quarter think the institution has good tools for assessing online instruction.
Academic technology administrators, who will often have the responsibility for providing such tools, have a much more positive view than faculty members do about the quality of the tools for assessing online education. The academic administrators are twice as likely to think that the institution has good tools in place. Even among this optimistic group, however, only half of those responding say that their institution has good tools in place. While the level of concern among administrators may be far less than among professors, a sizable proportion of both groups remain unconvinced that institutions are developing and providing the right set of tools for assessing online education.
Faculty members teaching at least one online course in the current academic year (and therefore most likely to have direct experience with any assessment tools provided) are far more positive about the quality of the tools than are those who are not currently teaching online. Only one in five of those with no online teaching responsibilities agree that good tools are in place. For those teaching online, the rate is almost double. However, even for this more-positive group, nearly two-thirds of faculty respondents do not agree that their institutions have good assessment tools for online education in place.
Faculty members and academic technology administrators were also asked if their institutions have fair systems for rewarding contributions made to digital pedagogy and paying for online instruction. A consistent finding in a number of previous Babson Survey Research Group reports is that teaching an online course takes more time and effort than does teaching face to face. Institutions appear to understand this and many have developed reward mechanisms that instructors recognize as fair. The distribution of faculty responses to the question about the fairness of paying for online instruction is roughly evenly split in thirds – with one-third agreeing, one-third disagreeing, and one-third neutral.
Academic technology administrators have a much more positive view about the fairness of the system for paying for online instructions. They are almost twice as likely as faculty members to agree that a fair system is in place at their institution.
Faculty opinions of the fairness of rewarding contributions to digital pedagogy are also about evenly split into thirds – with slightly more faculty members disagreeing than agreeing. The pattern of faculty responses is similar to that of professors’ views of the system for paying for online instruction, in that few faculty are at the extremes, with a stated opinion of strongly agree or strongly disagree. The largest single response category for both questions is neutral, followed by agree or disagree.
If faculty members and administrators view online education as taking more time and effort, a failure to recognize contributions to online education in its reward structures could dampen the faculty’s already modest level of enthusiasm for teaching online courses. To examine one aspect of the reward structure, the survey asked faculty members if their institution respects teaching with technology in tenure and promotion decisions. In this respect, professors believe that their institutions are doing a good job, as almost half of the faculty agree or strongly agree that this is the case, with another third neutral. Fewer than one in five faculty members disagreed with this statement.
The true test for any course or program is whether a faculty member would encourage his/her student or advisee to take it. On the most basic question asked of instructors at institutions with online offerings – have you recommended an online course to a student or advisee? – 60 percent of faculty report that they have.
A majority of faculty in all disciplines have recommended an online course, but there is some variability by discipline in this rate. Faculty members in the professions and applied sciences have the highest rate of recommending online courses (at 74 percent), and those in natural sciences the lowest (at 53 percent).
As might be expected, faculty members who teach online are far likelier to recommend online courses than are faculty who do not teach online. Among those who teach online the rate is 87 percent. Among those with no online teaching, it is 49 percent.
A 2009 faculty survey (The Paradox of Faculty Voices: Views and Experiences with Online Learning) noted the paradox that even faculty with low opinions about the quality of online offerings were recommending these very same courses to their students and advisees. The current results continue to show that large numbers of faculty members who believe that the learning outcomes of online are inferior are still recommending online courses for their students and advisees. The proportion of such instructors who recommend online courses is smaller than those who believe online and face-to-face learning outcomes are the same, but it still represents a significant number. Those few faculty members who believe that online learning outcomes are superior have, again as expected, the highest rate of recommending online courses.
This dichotomy raises an important question: Why are nearly half of professors who believe that online learning outcomes are inferior to that for face-to-face instruction still recommending them for their students? One possibility is that while they may believe the course to be inferior, an online course is the only (or best) option given the student’s situation. Another could be that while the faculty members believe that in general the learning outcomes for online are inferior, there are exceptions, and professors are willing to point their students in the direction of the (few) courses they believe are worthy.
This study uses data from two surveys – one targeting a representative national sample of higher education teaching faculty and one targeting academic technology administrators in higher education. The questionnaires for both surveys were similar, with changes in only a few questions to reflect the different nature of the respondents. All potential respondents were promised that no individual-level data would be reported, and that the individual-level responses and contact information would not be shared with Inside Higher Ed or any of the project’s advertisers. Data collection for both studies was conducted during May 2012.
The faculty sample comprises teaching faculty from all disciplines and was selected to be representative of the overall range of faculty members teaching in U.S. higher education. A multiple-stage selection process was used to select a stratified random sample of all teaching faculty. The process began by obtaining data from a commercial source, Market Data Retrieval, which claims that its records represent 93 percent of all teaching faculty. A total of 1,506,627 teaching faculty (defined as having at least one course code associated with their records) were included at that stage. Using information from the Carnegie Classification for each institution, faculty were then randomly selected from the master list in proportion to the number contained in each Carnegie Classification to produce a second-stage selection of 75,000 teaching faculty members. A number of them had e-mail addresses that were either no longer current or were eliminated because they were on opt-out lists, resulting in slightly under 60,000 total e-mail addresses to which survey invitation messages were sent. The number of messages that ended up in spam filters and did not reach the intended respondent is unknown.
A total of 5,100 faculty members responded to the survey invitation and visited the online survey form, 4,564 of whom provided a sufficient number of responses to be included in the study. Three-quarters of the respondents report that they are full-time faculty members. Just over one-quarter teach online, they are evenly split between male and female, and over one-third have been teaching for 20 years or more. Tables showing the characteristics of the respondents are provided in the appendix. A set of response weights were calculated to adjust for any differences in response rates by Carnegie Classification. The weights made small adjustments to the results so that inferences could be made about the population of all higher education teaching faculty in the United States.
The administrator sample is made up primarily of those individuals with responsibility for some aspect of academic technology at their institutions, selected to represent the full range of U.S. higher education institutions. Potential respondents were selected from a combination of a commercial mailing list source (Higher Education Publications, Inc.) and lists maintained by the Babson Survey Research Group. Additional administrator titles with responsibility for academic programs (such as “Vice President for Instruction”), but not directly for academic technology, were also included. There are a wide variety of titles among all those invited to participate – the most common being “Director of Academic Computing” and “Director of Instructional Technology.” Many others included “Vice President” or even a few with “Dean” as part of the title. Survey invitations were mailed to 5,726 administrators, of which slightly in excess of 200 were incorrect or no longer valid. A total of 681 administrators responded to the survey invitation and visited the online survey web site, 591 of whom provided a sufficient number of responses to be included in the study. The respondents include slightly more men than women and about one-quarter have been in their current position for 20 years or more.
The Babson Survey Research Group (BSRG) provided all sample selection, data collection, data processing, data analysis, charts, and data tables for the report.